In a year in which innovative vaccines have been developed faster than ever before, there is something all the more tragic about a GBS vaccine that hasn’t yet made it past a laboratory after 30 years of trying despite it being a leading cause of neo-natal mortality worldwide.
In my darker moments I question why it is that expectant mothers, mothers and children are again left waiting. Then I remind myself how often I’ve been told the technology required to make this vaccine happen is so difficult to create that comparing it to other vaccines is simply not fair. As one scientist said to me recently: “There are basically two types of diseases. Ones for which you can imagine vaccines being developed for in a ‘relatively’ straightforward way, and ones which you can’t. GBS is in the latter camp.”
What’s certain is you don’t get anywhere without making a compelling case for change. The new WHO GBS Vaccine Value proposition launched this week at ISSAD by WHO with London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is one such game changer. As well as being the first flagship milestone of the new World Health Organization Global Roadmap to Defeat Meningitis by 2030, it sets out the course of action needed to bring a vaccine to market.
Before this report we knew that GBS was a leading cause of infant mortality. Now we know our previous estimates were too low – it’s bigger than we thought. A vaccine works for everyone on every level – mums and babies get better health; countries get health systems that aren’t over-burdened; and vaccine producers get a sustainable business model. Provided everyone plays their part.
Some new research is needed to make this happen. Correlates of protection – a method of estimating if a vaccine will work in the real world without the need for massive vaccine trials beforehand – need setting up. New surveillance systems and standards must be put in place. Countries need supporting to understand and then tackle the challenge on the ground. But these things have all been done before for other diseases. It’s time for GBS to be taken as seriously.
The new World Health Organization Global Roadmap to Defeat Meningitis by 2030 is ambitious but achievable. A new vaccine for GBS – at the right price with the right access – will be a major contributor to that goal. Now it is time to take action and make it happen.